The pro-Kurdish democratic socialist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 percent of the national vote in Sunday’s elections, overcoming the 10 percent threshold necessary for a party to be represented in parliament. For the first time in thirteen years, the results have deprived the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of a parliamentary majority.
The HDP’s decision to contest the elections as a political party rather than field independent candidates as they had done in the past (independents are not restrained by the threshold requirement) proved to be a justified risk. But given the growing political strength of the Kurdish movements in Iraq and Syria, the decision was fated to offer a win-win scenario for the Kurds in Turkey even if it risked short term losses for the party. If the HDP had failed to pass the ten percent mark, part of a voting system designed to prevent smaller parties from entering the legislature, it would still have demonstrated its credentials as a pro-democracy party to a significant portion of voters across the country. The HDP would have earned newfound credibility as a legitimate political actor that was denied representation by a deeply flawed state system.
But the HDP did pass the threshold, and it now has the necessary momentum to propose or support new legislation in parliament that could normalize the polarized political climate in Turkey. The start may include overturning a draconian internal security law passed by the AKP administration earlier this year, reopening corruption charges against key AKP politicians, and lowering or even removing the electoral threshold that it has long opposed.
The HDP emerged with 80 parliamentary seats, more than double its record fielding independent candidates in its previous incarnation as the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Furthermore, it was able to gain representation outside of Kurdish areas, such as in Ankara and Izmir. In Istanbul the HDP’s votes rose from 4.8 percent in the 2011 general election (as the BDP) to 12.6 percent. To ensure a sufficient bump in its electoral percentage, the HDP appealed to conservative Muslim Kurdish voters in the east and southeast provinces, as well as key districts in Istanbul that leaned toward the AKP in past elections. Erdogan went as far as to wield a hastily prepared Kurdish-language translation of the Quran ahead of the vote to try to retain the support of religious Kurds. But pro-AKP sentiment among the Kurds waned amid a series of disappointments—the stalled government-led peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the uninvestigated Roboski/Uludere tragedy in late December 2011, in which government airstrikes killed 34 Kurdish civilians mistaken for PKK militants; and the AKP’s unwillingness to take decisive action to assist the Kurds in Kobani. For its part, the HDP played up its accommodationist posture toward religion, and co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas described himself as simultaneously a leftist and a faithful Muslim. In 2011, the AKP won six of eleven parliamentary seats in Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir, but on Sunday it lost all but one to the HDP.
The HDP also reached out to a pool of urban, secular, and liberal-democratic voters. This correlated most closely to the backers of Turkey’s main opposition party, the social-democrat Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has been struggling to reinvent itself in recent years. Defying the conventional party line, CHP chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu expressed his hope in the run-up to the election that the HDP would defeat the threshold, and he refrained from actively discouraging CHP voters from swinging to the HDP. The CHP has suggested that around 3.5 percent of their own voters lent strategic “anti-Erdogan” votes to the HDP as a bulwark against a hyper-presidency and the further erosion of rights and freedoms. In his post-election speech, Demirtas acknowledged that their success was due in part to votes originating outside their core constituency and promised to transform these borrowed votes into heartfelt support for the HDP.
The HDP has been handed a mandate to represent a medley of ideologically diverse voters, including a mix of anti-government protesters, environmentalists, and religiously conservative Kurds. Provincial and district level election results suggest that this latter group constitutes the lion’s share of the HDP’s new voters. But elements of the Kurdish vote, both within the conservative bloc and among nationalists, may grow uneasy with HDP politicians crediting the electoral win with a leftist platform that could come at the expense of a Kurdish-first posture and identity. The HDP may struggle to accommodate identity-based demands from its stronghold in Kurdish areas while continuing to act as a party that represents a wide cross-section of voters across Turkey.
But what the HDP can do with its new seats remains unclear. Since the AKP failed to get the required 276 seats to form a majority government, parliamentarians must form a coalition government within 45 days to avoid a new election. At this early stage, there are three main scenarios. These include a coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist National Action Party (MHP), which won 16 percent of the vote; a minority government created by the CHP and MHP with an HDP vote of confidence; and a “grand coalition” between the AKP and CHP. And although each of the three opposition parties has publicly ruled out the possibility of a coalition with the AKP at this time, there are signs that the CHP or MHP may agree to work with the AKP if it agrees to certain conditions, such as constraining Erdogan to his constitutionally prescribed powers. Meanwhile, none want to be cast as the culprit for failed coalition negotiations by prematurely agitating for repeat elections. This will embolden the AKP’s claims that Turkey can only be governed by a strong majority government.
Coalition-building efforts and inter-party dialogue will define the coming weeks. One of the key determinants for any coalition will be whether parties can agree on how to handle the future of the peace process and the terms of the PKK’s disarmament. With the HDP officially represented in parliament, it will be difficult for the Kurdish movement to justify a return to armed resistance as a method of securing its community’s rights. Though Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, will remain a symbol of Kurdish national authority, any indication that he is overpowering the HDP and intervening directly in parliament will trigger mistrust within the party’s new support base and risk derailing the HDP’s political claims. While AKP deputy Yalcin Akdogan has already said that a Kurdish peace deal that is not brokered by the AKP has no chance, the HDP has reiterated that enlarged parliamentary representation has strengthened its hand to bring about a lasting solution.
A coalition between the three opposition parties may prove possible if the peace process is regulated by a parliamentary legal framework. A guarantee that the PKK will not violate a ceasefire may serve as the first condition of any such agreement. The establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, which pro-Kurdish parties have long called for, may help facilitate such an understanding. If certain structural conditions are agreed upon, such as rendering talks with the PKK more transparent than was the case under the AKP, opposition parties may agree—even if begrudgingly—to explore options for cooperation. And together with the “borrowed” votes from the CHP, issue-based cooperation may provide the grounds for a soft partnership between the HDP and CHP. A joint decision between the parties to stall the passage of an AKP-led internal security bill in parliament in February indicates that such a partnership is possible. But the far-right MHP’s entrenched position against conducting talks with the PKK makes a three-way coalition difficult.
Turkey’s hopes for a pluralist democracy will depend on what may prove to be a short-lived parliament. Under current conditions, a new election late this year will not automatically favor any of Turkey’s political contenders. The incoming parliament might seek to lower or eradicate the electoral threshold before then, but lawmakers are aware this will likely change the composition of the next parliament. This may be part of the AKP’s new game plan: although the AKP refused to lower the 10 percent barrier during its thirteen-year rule, it may finally agree if it thinks it can overcome what it sees as a short-term tactical loss to the HDP and regain religious Kurdish votes. If the threshold is lowered, it is not clear whether the HDP will be able to hold on to its “borrowed” votes, and this may give the AKP the necessary number of seats in parliament to secure a single-party majority.
The HDP gained popular support as insurance against the rollback of democracy and now has a tall order to fill. If the broad-based democratic identity that the HDP has so painstakingly crafted can translate into meaningful opposition and increase the possibility of a peace deal, democratic pluralism has a chance of becoming entrenched in Turkey.